Musical theatre used to be the last refuge of perfect rhyme. It vanished years ago in poetry, which hasn’t had strict rhyming rules since Emily Dickinson, and pop music, where Taylor Swift pairs “T-Shirts” and “bleachers,” but anyone who wrote a musical was expected to stick to “wife” and “life.” That tradition may be vanishing. The last best-musical winner at the Tony Awards, Once, rhymes “that” with “react,” while the winner before that, Book of Mormon, abounds in not-quite rhymes like “monster” and “father.” The front-runner for 2013’s awards, to be held on June 9, is Matilda the Musical, and critics weren’t bothered by songwriter Tim Minchin’s rhymes like “calculus” and “miraculous.” Matthew Murray, chief theatre critic for Talkin’ Broadway, was one of the few critics to call out Book of Mormon for its poor rhyming, but admits that “those of us who desperately care about perfect rhymes in the theatre are something of a vanishing breed.”
To many writers, the rise of near-rhyme in award-winning musicals is a sign of declining standards. Stephen Sondheim, the man who rhymed “the hands on the clock turn” with “don’t sing a nocturne,” wrote in his first book, Finishing the Hat, that “using near-rhymes is like juggling clumsily.” In fact, he devoted an introductory chapter to why he’s “never come across a near-rhyme that works better than a perfect one would.” In an email to Maclean’s, Sondheim writes: “I’ve said all I have to say in the books about why perfect rhymes work better in the theatre than sloppy, lazy ones. I could expound further, but it would take too long to write and would be tedious to read.”
David Yazbek, who wrote music and lyrics for musicals such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels— where he got laughs with such strict rhymes as “Oklahoma” and “melanoma”—says he’s fine with off-rhymes from great rap artists like Jay-Z and Eminem, who follow “an alternative set of lyrical rules that I enjoy and respect.” But in the theatre, “Off-rhymes sound lazy to me, so I get distracted. And when they’re wedded to music that also sounds lazy, that pushes the ‘easy’ musical-theatre buttons, I get annoyed.” Also, “I think funny lyrics are funnier when the rhymes work.”
But for many modern pop artists, strict rhyming seems limiting and cramped. While traditionalists insist that nothing rhymes with “orange,” Eminem told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that near-rhymes like “storage” and “porridge” are acceptable. Canadian poet Elizabeth Greene (The Iron Shoes) adds that it may be hard for modern lyricists to believe in big, overarching rules: “Songwriters might feel drawn to off-rhyme or near-rhyme because ‘the times are not tidy,’ to adapt Sylvia Plath,” she says.
As more writers come into the theatre from pop backgrounds, like the U2 members who wrote Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—and rhymed “swim” with “skin”—life may become harder for strict rhymers. “I think that expectation has been lowered radically,” Yazbek says. “It seems there isn’t nearly as much pleasure taken in ‘clever’ lyric writing as there used to be. That’s okay, that’s just how it is.” Some of the old guard may be resigned to the change: Sondheim’s friend Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, told Playbill a few years ago that today’s customers “will accept off-rhymes,” and while he won’t do that himself, “I try not to be such a purist.” Michael Colby, lyricist for off-Broadway shows such as Charlotte Sweet, adds that when pop songs “include some truly awful rhymes, one might argue that show music should reflect today’s culture. And many recent musicals have lyrics that do just that.”
Still, Murray says his favourite lyricists, such as Jason Robert Brown (of the upcoming musical Honeymoon in Vegas) stick to true rhyme because they believe in “living up to the masters of the form, for almost all of whom false rhymes were unthinkable.” Some lyricists feel that even if standards change, they won’t want to change their own ideals for rhyming. “When I’m having trouble and try to convince myself a false rhyme will do, I rarely can go through with it,” Yazbek says. “Maybe I should see if I can live with it. It would make my life a lot easier.”